Be as sniffy as you like about the ‘booch’, but it’s now a “significant category” in the beverage space.
So says Alex Campbell – CEO of Greerton-based Good Buzz Beverage Co – who founded the company alongside his wife and kids in 2014.
“Functional beverages offer more,” according to Alex, and the “more” in kombucha’s case is found in beneficial ingredients such as herbs, vitamins, minerals, amino acids or raw fruit
And the “significant” part is explained by the fact that Alex, his wife Amber and children Kaylie, Lauren and Nathan are cranking out 100,000 litres a month of the “functional beverage” from their Maleme St ‘booch’ barn.
It is known in other countries, amongst a wealth of names, as tea fungus, Manchurian mushroom tea, Hongo, teekwass, fungus japonicas and Wunder-Pilz, and if this reads like a thinly disguised advertisement, it is also a story about a special services soldier and the undoing of Saddam Hussein, as well as the bacteria that lurks in its trillions in the gut.
Some love it, some loathe it and some simply don’t understand it, but there’s no doubting the global curiosity for kombucha – the sort of sour, sort of sharp, sort of vinegary, sort of tangy, sort of addictive kombucha that has tickled the national taste buds of New Zealand.
For starters, Alex balks at the word “fad”.
Kombucha has been around in various incarnations for 200 years.
Are teenagers drinking it because it’s cool and because everyone else is doing it?
“Maybe,” he admits. “But what about all the people in their 50s, 60s and 70s? Are they drinking it because it’s cool?
“My grandmother’s drinking it and she’s 93. My other grandmother made Manchurian mushroom tea for 40 years.
“She must have been very faddish!”
It seems others, in their droves, are now supping the once hippy tipple in supermarkets, bars, cafes, restaurants, gyms and yoga studios. There’s a new acceptance, a new respectability.
“People are conscious of sugar in their diet, and beverages certainly have a lot of bad heat,” says Alex. There’s a surprisingly low two-to-eight grams of sugar in an eight ounce serving of kombucha, compared to 39 grams of sugar in a regular can of Coke.
“People are also drinking less alcohol,” he adds. “There’s no doubt about it – the data is clear.” That would explain why New Zealand Breweries bought a chunk of the Good Buzz Beverage Co and has installed kombucha on tap alongside beers.
Amber started tinkering with kombucha at home whilst living in Wellington, and there was a lot of experimentation. Some was too fizzy, some wasn’t fizzy enough.
“It started tasting quite good,” she says.
“When I stopped drinking alcohol eight years ago, I would take kombucha to barbecues and social functions. It looks like beer and makes you feel part of the party.”
It got to the point where Alex left his day job in software and peddled Amber’s kombucha from café to café.
“Vanilla Café in Thorndon always said if we started commercial production, they would be first to stock it. We did, and they were.”
Production went from the Campbell’s kitchen, to
a facility up the road in Wainuiomata, to a 600m2 plant in Greerton – just up the road from a contract bottling plant – where they’re currently contributing a bit of fizz to Tauranga’s economic boom.
“It has plenty of capacity for quick growth,” says Alex.
He’s not your normal CEO – there’s 40-year-old youthful good looks, a beard that lives its own life, the undercut man bun, shorts and a t-shirt that reads: “Get in my belly”.
He wears his leg tat well, and has a mellow American accent which is very easy to listen to.
“Appearances aren’t everything,” says Alex. “And we created a brand that’s supposed to be fun.
“When I was a Special Forces operator I blended in, because you had to.”
Special Forces? Born in the United States and raised in Kaikohe, Alex left school with “barely a Fifth Form Certificate”, but became an unconventional warfare specialist in the American Army and latterly a software professional before the ‘booch’ got him.
It’s Boys’ Own stuff. He was stationed at Fort Bragg, home of The Airborne. He went to jump school, learned Arabic and German and became a demolition engineer.
Along the way he went to survival, evasion, resistance and escape school. “You learn interrogation techniques, how to withstand them and come out alive.” He was involved with taking out a terrorist organisation during Operation Iraqi Freedom, to rid the country of the tyrant Saddam Hussein.
A precis of his service doesn’t do him service.
He also did bomb forensics and weapons intelligence gathering in Baghdad. In between times he met and married Amber and ended up back in Wellington with a software company and a kitchen full of cultures.
The most menacing thing he deals with these days is a blob of microbes called a SCOBY – an acronym for a Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast – also known as ‘the Mother’.
It’s the living heart of kombucha.
While the jury may still be out on the hard-and-fast health benefits of this “magic in a bottle”, the drink’s gut-friendly bacteria and antioxidants make it a good alternative to more sugary drinks.
The health benefits, we are led to believe, come from a probiotic status – that the fermented foods like kombucha and the probiotics they contain are not only good for you, but excellent for digestion.
Alex says the short answer to the fact or fallacy question is: “Yes, kombucha is good for you”.
“The fermented category in the food space is growing too,” he says.
Adherents claim kombucha can increase energy and awareness, decrease headaches and fatigue, and have a positive impact on balancing moods.Paying particular attention to gut health is also a great way to promote optimal overall health, both physically and mentally.
And hey, our ancestors lived on bacteria. “They weren’t thinking of bacteria - there weren’t a lot of microscopes, sterilisation or pasteurisation, canning, package foods or refrigeration.
“They just figured if they kept this cabbage under water then something happens that enables them to keep eating this stuff for years.”
So kombucha is probably back to the future.